How many times have you heard that? From instructors, friends – possibly even from yourself….and yet how many of us really know HOW we can use our breathing to help our horses – and ourselves?
Breathing isn’t just important for staying alive – it’s important for HOW we stay alive.
And breathing is key to our confidence, in many areas of life. Have you ever been told, or told someone to “take a deep breath” before doing something you are worried about? Take a deep breath before you go on stage, take a deep breath before you speak….
So we all know taking a deep breath can help – but there is far more to breathing than that.
Try this with a friend: take hold of a rope, and have your friend hold the other end and close their eyes. With the rope slightly slack, but not totally loose, hold it lightly in your hand and hold your breath….. then breathe out (quietly!) and carry on holding the rope breathing deep and slow. Do this a few times — I will guarantee your friend will be able to feel the difference.
And if your friend can feel the difference in her human hand – just imagine how big a difference your horse – who is sensitive enough to feel a feather on his skin – can feel!
If you watch a group of horses standing together in the field, napping in the sun – look closely at their breathing: they will naturally synchronise. Just like babies do when sleeping with other babies – or with their mothers.
Breathing is a powerful flow of energy that, although mostly instinctive, can have powerful effects on how people and animals interact with us.
When I first meet a nervous or worried horse – one that has those wrinkles above the eyes – worry wrinkles – or has a tight mouth and nostrils – the first thing I do is synchronise my breathing with him or her. I find it easier to do this if I match my whole body to him – but it’s when my breathing matches, that we start being in harmony.
I didn’t realise I did this until a client pointed it out to me – it was something that I had started doing “naturally” – and it took someone watching to work out what I was actually doing with my body language.
When I matched my breathing with the horse – for a few minutes – then, when I slowed my breathing, and started relaxing – so did the horse.
This was the first place I realised that just managing my breathing made a huge difference to horses even when I was working with them on the ground – although now I think about it, it’s just common sense!
Many horsemanship approaches talk of using your “energy” when you work with your horse – and to me, one way we do this is through our breathing. If I ask a horse to go and trot on a circle, then when I slow my breathing – if he is connected to me, his breathing will change and his gait will also slow down….
Using this approach, you can have your horse going up into trot and down into walk just on a breath…you can have your horse back up just by taking a deep breath and standing a bit taller…you can change your breathing and your horse will change too…
Which makes me wonder – if our horses can be that sensitive – what effect does our breathing have on them when we are NOT thinking about it?
Often when I am working with people on their riding confidence, I have to remind them to “breathe” – they are holding their breath. To hold our breath, we have to have tension in our bodies – mostly in our core – and how does that feel to the horse?
Many times, when I say to someone sitting on a nervous, edgy horse – “breathe out, loudly and long!” and they noisily exhale, letting the air they have been holding out of their lungs – the horse relaxes too, losing its edginess, and in fact often breathe out themselves as if they are letting go of tension too. Which is exactly what they are doing.
When we approach a horse, holding our breath, or with short, shallow breathing – the horse knows this. They hear that breathing and, as the superb prey animals they are, they KNOW something is wrong. They pick up this tension, and get ready to run from whatever is scaring us. Not realising of course, that THEY are what is scaring us (or their behaviour at any rate!)
Recently I was working with – well let’s change the names as I usually do in this blog unless I have specific permission to tell the story – – so I was working with Emma who has a lovely young horse called Josh. Josh is a very large, very young horse and is tall and well muscled. And when I first met him — *I* did not feel totally safe in the same space as him.
What had happened was that over time, Emma had lost confidence in him. Her tension and worry was then picked up by him – and he then felt worried and did not feel happy with that tension around him – -so he would swing his head round to nip and “protect himself” – a defensive behaviour that many had read as dominance. Most people’s usual response to dominance is to get bigger and more assertive – which is the WORST thing to do when the behaviour is defensive – it only makes them feel they have to defend themselves and their space MORE – and we get into an escalating spiral of aggressive behaviour – not at all good for horse OR human. And certainly not good for confidence!
As a result of feeling the tension around him, Josh had developed many protective behaviours. He tried REALLY hard to be good, and would try to lead well and do what he was asked, but if anything stressed him (wind, being separated from his herd mate) – he would find it hard to stay with his tense human and on one occasion when I visited he was rearing and extremely anxious and only relaxed when he was allowed to return to his field mate and was away from his human.
One give away that his behaviour was comfort seeking and defensive rather than aggressive and dominant was that when he backed his hind quarters into his herd leader’s side – she tolerated it and did NOT tell him off for it. So we knew we had to show him that he didn’t need to defend himself from us before we could get any more advanced communication going.
Over a few sessions, we did many exercises – but one thing I focused on doing was getting in harmony with him. When he was walking away from me, I would walk in time with him – and I would consistently match is breathing and then slow my breathing down.
One of the most obvious signs that we are anxious – -is our breathing. By focusing on our breathing and slowing it down to steady, deep breaths – we send a completely different message to our horse when we are around them.
And this works regardless of how we initially feel.
And you know the amazing thing? When we do deep slow breathing – our OWN feelings change.
There are simple biological reasons for this: slow, deep breathing allows the adrenalin to shift from our body – short rapid breathing is both the trigger for adrenalin and the result of adrenalin – and straightforward biofeedback systems mean that while adrenalin can affect breathing – breathing can also directly affect adrenalin.
The fact is, that when we slow our own breathing, and focus on it – our tension level changes. Our muscles relax – and probably most importantly – our BRAIN slows down and allows us to take our time and THINK.
We shift from being reactive, fear driven creatures – to responsive, thinking beings – and that feels completely different to our horses.
To help Emma work on her breathing in a believable way, she learned some games that gave her confidence that she was safe around him (we used the “that grass is mine” game from a previous article to show her that she COULD Move him around and ask him to stay away from her). Once she felt a bit safer about being able to move Josh out of her space, she could focus on using her breathing to relax around him – and to feel more confident and better inside herself. As she started behaving more confidently, and breathing more confidently – Josh started relaxing more and ALLOWING her to move him around – and so the whole thing became a virtuous spiral of BUILDING confidence….which was just what they needed.
Breathing works on the ground AND when riding: when I ride nervous horses the FIRST thing I do when I get on is make sure I am BREATHING….slowing my breathing and heart rate enables them to let go of tension and breathe too…..
After all, the mantra is “calm, forward, straight” — calm is the first requirement, and this is where your breathing can have such a powerful impact.
There are many ways to learn to manage breathing. Many meditation techniques work well for this – and a characteristic of the meditation state is that the brain waves are those of deep sleep! (delta waves). This is also the brain pattern of very creative people when in deep thought…..how interesting!
Learning games and techniques so you know you are SAFE will also really help you manage your breathing.
Many instructors and teachers are now aware of the importance of breathing – Jenny Rolfe has written a book on the subject http://www.naturallyclassical.com/latest-publications-by-classical-dressage-trainer-jenny-rolfe.html
And all of us know that when we let that breath out, we feel that tension ebbing from our shoulders, down our arms and out of our toes – enabling us to think and feel in a very different way.
Learning to breathe when we are with our horses is a first step to removing that “armouring” that fear and unconfidence put between us and our horses.
When we get it right we can use our breathing to harmonise with our horses, relax our horses – -relax ourselves – and use our breath as communication to finally get that “moving on a breath” feeling so many of us have dreamed of.
So – what are YOU doing to work on your breathing?
How can we work on ourselves and our breathing so that we can work with our horses “on a breath”?
And how can we use our breathing to build and strengthen our confidence?
Yours, in confidence